A programme to develop reading-skills, described here by Mary Nugent, has produced positive results in a County Dublin special school, both for learners and for their helpers. Mary Nugent, Senior Educational Psychologist, St John of God Services (now with National Educational Psychological Service, N. Frederick Street, Dublin 1)


All of us working in special education are interested in raising the level of achievement of the people with whom we work. This article addresses the attempts made to raise the reading standards of students attending a special school for children with mild learning difficulties.

St Augustine’s, a special school in County Dublin which caters for children from 8 to 18, has been working on a continuous programme for the development of reading skills since 1997. Strategies included staff development sessions and new approaches to the teaching of phonics, as well as establishing carpeted reading corners in every classroom. These were fully equipped, with comfortable seating, a wide range of reading materials and headphones and audio cassettes. A standardised reading test (the MICRA-T, CJ Fallon) was introduced so that reading ages could be gathered every year. The Reading Partners Scheme belongs in the context of these multiple interventions aimed at raising reading standards.

The Reading Partner Scheme involved the matching of students with peers in the school, to take part in paired reading activities, usually three times per week for 20-minute sessions. This was cross-age tutoring, in the sense that the tutors were usually at least two years older than those tutored. There is considerable research to demonstrate that this type of peer learning programme is highly effective (e.g. Kalkowski 1995, Goodlad 1996; Topping and Ehly 1998). Such research indicates that there are gains for both parties in reading ability, self-esteem and social skills. However, there has been very little research into the use of peer tutoring with students with mild learning disabilities and what has been done has tended to focus on the persons with mild difficulties being tutored by a ‘mainstream’ peer. This project was, therefore, very important in looking at empowering students with mild difficulties to be tutors. The results are overwhelmingly positive, and they provide important lessons for all of us working with persons with disabilities about the experience of being enabled and the powerful effects of having a role in helping, rather than being helped.

A pilot scheme for Reading Partners was established in the summer term of 1997. Teachers were asked to nominate students in their classes who would benefit from extra tuition in basic reading and those who would be able to offer tutoring and would benefit from such an experience.

There were no objective criteria for inclusion. It is important to note that all helpers had reading skills that would be considered delayed in comparison to the mainstream population, and some were even weak in comparison to their own classroom peers. For example, a 14-year-old helper might have had a reading age of nine years. However, this did not prove to be a difficulty, because the learner was always carefully selected and had significantly weaker skills.

Teachers used the results of the standardised MICRA-T reading test to guide their choices. Therefore learners tended to be those students who had performed least well on the test, compared to their classroom peers. This meant that the learners for the pilot phase (and indeed subsequently) were those students with the weakest reading skills, who often had seemingly intractable difficulty in mastering literacy.

There was considerable work involved in managing the logistics of matching partners. As well as having to consider chronological and reading ages, the management of timing was an onerous task. Partnerships were to meet two to three times per week, after lunchtime. As the school timetable was already established, many students had commitments such as swimming, pottery, PE or speech and language therapy already slotted into this session.

Helpers were trained in a single session which was jointly presented by the educational psychologist and the school vice-principal. It was explained that there were four key tasks: to remember to go to the learner’s classroom at the appointed time, to listen to the child reading, to be friendly, and to give praise. Students were advised to let their learner partners attempt difficult words themselves and then to supply the word if the child appeared to be struggling.

A great deal of emphasis was put on the importance of the partnership being egalitarian. Although the terms tutor and tutee are preferred in the academic literature, in St Augustine’s the more accessible terms helper and learner were used. It was hoped that the terms chosen would be experienced as positive by all parties.

Each person had their own set of responsibilities, so that while one party may have had the title of helper, neither party was allowed to feel helpless. Responsibilities for the helper included remembering meeting times, coming to the learner’s room and keeping a record of each session. The learner was responsible for choosing a suitable book, having it ready and keeping the reading record form filed safely.

The Reading Partners programme ran on a pilot basis in the summer of 1997, and has been run on a term basis since then. Evaluation questionnaires have been completed by teachers, helpers and learners. Additionally, the MICRA-T reading ages have been collected year by year.

How have students responded to the reading scheme?

The overwhelming response to the scheme was positive. Questionnaires revealed that 98% of participants enjoyed being in the scheme. Helpers particularly liked ‘helping others’ and ‘teaching someone to read’. Learners cited improvement in their reaidng and the helpfulness of their partner as the most positive aspects of the programme. The vast majority of learners believed that their reading had improved as a result of participation in the scheme. Some of the comments are worth reproducing here.

It made me feel confident that I could read well enough to help, (helper).

I was doing a useful job, (helper).

I like nice books and my partner was helpful, (learner).

It was good to learn how to read, (learner).

This student was motivated for the first time, (teacher).

X’ felt good and responsible and important when helping, (teacher).

Of course, nothing is perfect, and so inevitably there were some difficulties. Our greatest difficulty was the absence of one or other of the partners; learners, particularly, were very disappointed if their helper was absent or forgot about the session. Nonetheless, comments collected in the questionnaire were most encouraging. But we were still left with the question, ‘Did reading standards actually improve?’

Gains in reading ages

Overall, in special education and special schools reading progress is, at best, modest. For example, we found that prior to this project students in St Augustine’s made, on average, three months of reading progress for every year they had spent in full-time education.

In the first year of the programme, it was possible to match the helpers who participated in the scheme with a control group. While the control group made an average of 7.16 months gain in their reading, the helpers group managed a staggering 17.4 months gain. It is important to be aware that even the control group was doing far better than would normally be documented for students with mild learning difficulty, indicating that the several other interventions were also paying off.

Data in 1998 and 1999 showed that learners (i.e. the students with most intractable difficulties) were making an average of 6.55 months each year–twice as much progress as had previously been the case. The gains for helpers were even more impressive, with helpers making gains of 14.82 months per year. Suddenly it was found that students considered to have a mild learning difficulty were making more progress in reading than would be expected of a child in a mainstream setting.

A significant feature of the results, not evident in the data reported above, is the importance–particularly to older students–of what may at first appear to be modest gains in reading ages. For example, Sam (13 years and 5 months) had a reading age of less than 6 years and 6 months. He took part in the reading scheme pilot programme in the summer of 1998. In the following autumn he tested with a reading age of 6 years and 9 months. He also also participated in the scheme during the spring and summer terms of 1999. By autumn 1999, his reading age was 7 years and 2 months. Objectively, these may seem to be modest gains, but Sam had spent eight years in education, four of them in a specialist service, and these gains had enormous significance for him.

Overwhelmingly, it was the helpers in the scheme who made quite exceptional individual progress. For example, Mark had a reading age of 10-03 in 1998; after participating in the reading partners’ scheme he earned a reading age of 13.03 in the following year. Sandra moved from a reading age of 10-08 in 1997 to 14.03 in 1998.

One of the most interesting aspects of the project was the wide range of benefits accruing to the tutor. Not only did the answers to the questionnaire indicate high levels of satisfaction, increased motivation and gains in confidence and self-esteem, but the helpers also made tremendous strides in their own reading ability. This is particularly interesting, because the helpers were not actually reading themselves but were listening to others reading, and supplying ‘difficult’ words. For students whose school history had consisted of considerable failure, the opportunity to be seen as a helper with valuable skills cannot be underestimated.

In the future, it would be useful to find meaningful ways of measuring how the experience of tutoring builds self-esteem, responsibility and social skills in tutors. It is hoped that the positive results reported here will encourage others to utilise and evaluate peer tutoring with children and adults with learning difficulties, particularly to empower the ‘helped’ to have the experience of ‘helping’.